JARS v57n2 - Companion Plants: Fargesia murielae: The Umbrella Bamboo

Companion Plants: Fargesia murielae: The Umbrella Bamboo
Ken Shannik
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Article first appeared in the East Coast Gardener, Vol.3, No.5, and revised for the ARS Journal.

This Chinese bamboo is said to be the most beautiful and elegant of all the bamboos. It has bright green new canes which age to yellow. The partially evergreen lush leaves are a fresh pea green. Unlike many, it is not an invasive spreading variety but a clumper - this is highly unusual for most other clumping bamboos are tropical. Fortunately for us in Nova Scotia, this high altitude Chinese species does best in a cool summer climate and is very hardy as well. The umbrella bamboo ( Fargesia murielae ) and fountain bamboo ( F. nitida ) are the hardiest for cold climates and when fully established easily tolerate winter lows of –25°C to -30°C (-13°F to –21°F) for very short periods. Fargesia nitida is very slightly hardier than F. murielae ; both should be planted out of wind.
Fargesia murielae sends up new canes called "culms" from late May to late June and reach full size in just a couple of weeks. These canes live for four or more years and eventually lose vigour and die out. As the clump becomes established, and with good growing conditions, new canes should reach 3-4 meters high (9-12 feet). The oldest plant in the area (in Dartmouth, N.S.) was received from the Arnold Arboretum by John Weagle around 1980 and was 12 feet high and about 6 feet across after fifteen years. As with most other umbrella bamboos, it flowered in 1998, produced a large garbage bag full of seed and is now dead. The next flowering for this species is estimated to be around the year 2085. The new canes of F. nitida appear as late as August.
In fall, the older lower leaves of Fargesia murielae will turn bright yellow and drop. The newer ones will be retained. In all but our coldest years the foliage has stayed remarkably evergreen throughout the winter. It is a wonderful winter sight to see the leaves dusted with snow. Heavy wet snow loads can flatten the canes but they pop right back up when the snow melts. Be warned however; bamboo should not be planted along the path to the house, unless you are prepared to climb over flattened canes frozen in the snow! As well, after a rain the leaves, each holding a big drop of water, can soak you as you brush against them. By March the leaves get rather tattered but the new ones produced in May quickly push off the tired old ones.
All bamboo of the same genus and species generally flower worldwide over a period of about five or more years after a given time period and then many species die. It should be noted that this synchronized flowering while observed in the wild may be more prevalent in the garden as many introductions are from a single clone. Because bamboo, as with most other plants, are given names and classified into genus and species based chiefly on their flowers it comes as no surprise that the names can be highly confusing. Ernest Wilson introduced the umbrella bamboo from China in 1913 and named it after his daughter, Muriel. The local Chinese of Hubei Province could not recall that this bamboo had flowered in recent memory though Wilson is believed to have collected seedlings later. Therefore, you will find this plant mistakenly listed in the past under many names - Arundinaria murielae , Sinoarundinaria murielae , Sinarundinaria murielae , Fargesia spathecus and, most recently and only until it flowered, as Thamnocalamus spathecus . In about 1995, Fargesia murielae started flowering and in Nova Scotia most plants flowered heavily in 1998 producing vast quantities of seed. Its flowering cycle is presumed to be approximately once every 92 years. It is a slow and expensive process to divide bamboo. We are fortunate to now have that solved with many seedlings about with a germination rate around 75 percent. The seedlings have shown some variation with a number of elegant, narrow leafed dwarfs appearing in the lot.

Fargesia murielae
Fargesia murielae. .
Photo courtesy of of Plant Publicity Holland

Cultural Requirements
This bamboo does best in bright shade to partial shade. In full sun the leaves will roll, turn yellow and burn in winter. Choose a spot that will allow the bamboo to spread in time and allow for the eventual height. The site should be protected from wind especially in the winter, as the leaves can be evergreen. Bamboo looks especially good where they can be viewed from the house in winter.
Bamboos demand good drainage and contrary to popular belief they are NOT water plants for bog or swampy soil. If water sits in the planting area at any time the site is too wet and the plants will die rapidly. Instead the soil should be evenly moist and never get dry. An acid loam is perfect but poor soils can be improved with the addition of peat, very well-rotted cow or sheep manure and a bit of garden fertilizer. Heavy soils are tolerated if the drainage is good. Plant the new bamboo no deeper than it was growing in the pot, mulch with pine bark mulch or pine needles and water heavily once a week heavily for the first summer.
Fertilize every year with lawn fertilizer such as 6-12-12 before the new canes emerge. Keep the mulch replenished every year. Compost or well-rotted cow or sheep manure spread liberally over the root area in early spring will get the plants in high gear. An occasional light application of sand will supply the silica bamboos require to strengthen their canes. Once every few years the older less vigorous canes should be removed just below soil level to keep the grove looking fresh. Do not leave a stub above ground, as these can be brutally dangerous to children, pets, feet and knees. The old canes make perfect garden stakes when hung and dried under cover for a few weeks.

Bamboos are virtually trouble free in Nova Scotia given good cultural practices. A word of warning however; the bamboo mite is a serious problem in some areas of the West Coast and Europe and is very difficult to eradicate once established on the leaves, canes and rhizomes. This pest causes disfigurement of the leaves, and leaves become covered in what appears to be white rectangles areas sapped of chlorophylla by the web covered mites on the leaf undersides. Quarantine all imported bamboos for a year until you are absolutely certain they are pest-free. Should you discover any remove all leaves and burn, briskly rub the canes down with an insecticide soaked pad and apply a soil drench of an improved insecticide. We are lucky to have successfully avoided introduction of these mites so far.

These are exciting times for bamboo lovers. As with rhododendrons, a wealth of new high altitude Chinese bamboos are being collected and distributed. It may be some time before these are accurately identified and their hardiness determined. A few fargesias with promise for this area are Fargesia denudata , F. rufa , F. Juizhaigou #1 (especially attractive with reddish canes), F. robusta and host of others. We are presently testing these for hardiness in coastal Nova Scotia.

Ken Shannick is past president of the Atlantic Chapter of the Rhododendron Society of Canada. He owns and operates Insigne Gardens in Halifax and grows specialty and rare plants - hellebores, asarums, bamboos and hard-to-find perennials - for the wholesale trade. Ken also specializes in the design and construction of rhododendron gardens in the metro area.